What's Wrong With Baseball?

There is a widespread chorus shouting about baseball becoming increasingly boring. The reality is that although the contests have acquired more of an entertainment atmosphere, the thrust of excitement has waned because of two primary factors.
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There is a widespread chorus that is shouting that baseball has become increasingly boring. The reality is that as the games get longer, and the contests at the ballparks acquire more of an entertainment atmosphere, the thrust of excitement in following one's favorite team has waned.

While the shell of the game remains the same, in certain central ways the nature of baseball has changed and lost some luster. For example, one of the most electrifying plays in baseball is the attempted steal of home, a feat that has all but vanished. The image of Jackie Robinson repeatedly intimidating opposing pitchers by dancing off of third base -- prior to his dash for home plate -- remains one of the most exciting memories in the history of the national pastime.

Two primary factors accounting for the decline of baseball's popularity are (a) the extent to which the game now revolves around home runs and strikeouts, and (b) the flaws in the playoff structure. Home runs and strikeouts have come to dominate the action/inaction of the game. Although major league baseball is now beyond the steroid era -- characterized by artificially inflated power statistics -- it is common for marquee players to hit 30 home runs and to accumulate upward of 150 strikeouts during the long season. This is thought of as a good year!

For a batter to avoid a strikeout by making contact -- and putting the ball in play -- is no longer a priority. Nowadays some players shamelessly strike out more than 200 times. In contrast, consider these statistics from the golden age of baseball: Power hitter Joe DiMaggio never struck out more than 39 times in a season, and his arch rival, Ted Williams, never fanned more than 64 times in a season. Stan Musial's strikeout high was 50, and Jackie Robinson's was 42. Dixie Walker, "the peoples' choice" of the Brooklyn Dodgers, incredibly never struck out more than 28 times in any year.

Babe Ruth led the American League 5 times in strikeouts, with what was viewed as an outrageously high number of 93 in 1923 in 152 games. And Vince DiMaggio was viewed as a strikeout king, when he led the National League with 87 K's in 1942, and again in 1945 with 91 K's. In 1943 free swinging Bill "Swish" Nicholson of the Cubs led the league in home runs (29) and strikeouts (71).

Now compare these numbers with the recent performance of Ryan Howard, who struck out a record 13 times in the 2009 World Series, and 17 times in the 2010 playoffs spanning 9 games. This level of failure dwarfs the fact that Howard has hit more home runs over the last 5 years than any other major leaguer. Although Howard can sometimes be a home run hitting machine, the preponderance of his strikeouts in the 2010 playoffs was a large impediment in preventing the Philadelphia Phillies from becoming the first national league team to make it to three consecutive World Series, since the St. Louis Cardinals during the wartime years of 1942-1944.

It is also damaging to the game to see how the MLB power brokers (i.e. revenue seekers) are enamored with the playoff structure, which caters to the position that any team can get hot and prevail in a short post season series. The 1973 Mets advanced to the World Series after winning only 82 games in the regular season, and then defeating the powerful Cincinnati Reds in what was then a one tier playoff system. Something was wrong with that picture. In 1987 the Mets dominated the L.A. Dodgers winning 10 of 11 regular season games. In essence they proved that they were the better team, but the Dodgers got hot and won their playoff match- up. In the foreseeable future it is likely that a team with a losing season record could win its division and even make it to the World Series. How much would that cheapen the game!
In the current World Series neither the Giants nor the Rangers won more than 92 regular season games (when has that ever happened?), a rarity, which highlights that the best teams don't always make it to the final round. Commissioner Bud Selig celebrates the rotation of playoff teams and World Series winners in recent years, and takes pride in the success of several wild card entries. Selig is currently advocating for adding another wild card team to the playoff rounds, which would further dilute the standard of excellence that should define a playoff berth.

There is too much emphasis on parity, which is designed to enhance fan interest and increase revenues. For the good of baseball this preference needs to be rectified. The system de-emphasizes the regular season. Teams with the best records over 162 games should be given a greater advantage in the playoffs. Whether they are division winners or wild card runner ups, teams with the best records should be rewarded with more than a one game home field advantage. One approach would be to give them an additional home game, i.e., 4 of 5 in a five game series, and 5 of 7 in the league championship series. This would increase the probability that the teams with the best regular season records would advance to the World Series, by providing a distinct advantage which was earned by their season winning percentage. Such a re-configuration would add an appropriate extra layer of difficulty to the challenging teams; and it is conceivable that the Phillies and Yankees might have prevailed as their league winners, and represented baseball's excellence in a true World Series.

More Stanley H. Teitelbaum at www.Stanley Teitelbaum.com

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